Exercise-induced anxiety is often the culprit behind mental tension, irregular heartbeat and feelings of dread. These unpleasant symptoms are due to the so-called fight-or-flight response. However, exercise may relieve anxiety in the long run, so there's no need to stop working out.
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What Causes Anxiety?
Mental health statistics show about 40 million American adults are living with anxiety, reports the National Alliance on Mental Illness. This condition comes in many forms, including social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and phobias. They are all characterized by a sense of impending danger and excessive fear in situations that don't actually threaten your safety. You may feel anxious before a job interview, while on a date or even in the gym.
Anxiety causes both mental and physical symptoms, from irritability and feelings of dread to rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, upset stomach and difficulty sleeping. If left unaddressed, it can take a toll on your life and keep you from doing the things you enjoy. Over time, it may increase your risk of depression, heart disease, diabetes and other ailments, states Harvard Health Publishing.
Experiencing occasional anxiety is perfectly normal. Think of it as your body's defense mechanism. When you're in danger, the sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline and norepinephrine, triggering the fight-or-flight response. This causes a number of physical symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat, lightheadedness, blurred vision and muscle tension. The fight-or-flight response can also kick in when you believe that you're in danger, even if that's not the case.
This reaction serves as a survival mechanism and could save your life in critical situations by making you more alert, states Nemours, but it can also mean that exercise makes anxiety worse. Simply put, the fight-or-flight response sharpens your senses so you can react fast when facing danger. The problem is that your body can also overreact to everyday situations that are not threatening by any means, such as work pressure or job interviews.
What Is Exercise-Induced Anxiety?
Surprisingly, exercise triggers anxiety too, especially in those who are prone to this condition. A small study published in Frontiers in Psychology in August 2018 suggests that exercise may act as a stressor for certain individuals, increasing their anxiety levels.
Read more: The One Workout That Helped Cure My Anxiety
As discussed earlier, anxiety can kick in anytime as a response to minor or imaginary threats. If, say, you're concerned about what others might think of you, that issue may trigger the stress response. Perhaps you're not comfortable with your weight. Or maybe you're not sure how to do a particular exercise. Any of these stressors may contribute to anxiety.
Regardless of the nature of stressors, exercise-induced anxiety can have both physiological and mental causes. When you exercise, your breathing and heart rate increases, your adrenaline levels go up and you begin to sweat. High-intensity interval training, for example, raises epinephrine and norepinephrine up to 14.5 times over their normal values, according to the University of New Mexico. Therefore, exercise in itself can feel like an anxiety or panic attack.
Furthermore, certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem, shyness or perfectionism, may fuel anxiety. Stress, family problems and other lifestyle factors may play a role too. For example, if you're working on a big project and feeling stressed, anxiety can kick in and worsen during exercise.
However, this doesn't mean that you should give up exercise. Physical activity may relieve anxiety over time, reports the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). As it turns out, regular exercise may help relieve stress, improve cognition and boost your self-esteem. It's also a good way to fight depression and lower your odds of developing anxiety disorders.
How Exercise Reduces Anxiety
Avoidance is a hallmark feature of anxiety, states a November 2017 review featured in Child Psychiatry and Human Development. Your subconscious might be telling you that you're safe as long as you avoid the gym. Doing so could make things worse.
According to the ADAA, people who are physically active have lower anxiety and depression rates than those with a sedentary lifestyle. Regular exercise is even more beneficial. These effects vary among individuals, though.
The Mayo Clinic points out that exercise increases endorphin production, leading to feelings of well-being. Endorphins are the so-called "feel good" hormones. Furthermore, regular exercise may counteract the effects of anxiety and depression on sleep, boost your self-esteem and increase mental clarity.
A review published in Frontiers in Psychiatry in April 2013 suggests that exercise may increase BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) levels, leading to a reduction in anxiety symptoms. Additionally, it may cause positive changes in the brain and protect against anxiety disorders.
Several studies cited in the above review indicate that exercise may reduce anxiety through distraction. Research shows that physical activity can be just as effective as meditation against anxiety. On top of that, it appears to have longer-lasting effects. Although further studies are needed to confirm these findings, the current evidence is promising.
Dealing With Exercise-Induced Anxiety
Anxiety can have a multitude of causes, from genetics to lifestyle factors. According to the University of Michigan, cognitive behavioral therapy may help you address this problem by identifying its underlying cause. Certain medications, such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors, may help too. However, if you have only mild anxiety, you may benefit from a more holistic approach, like deep breathing exercises or meditation.
The American Institute of Stress recommends practicing abdominal breathing for 20 to 30 minutes a day to relax your body and ward off anxiety. You may also meditate on your way to work or incorporate yoga into your routine. These relaxation techniques can make you sleepy, so avoid using them while driving. Also, it's not advisable to practice after a heavy meal or while drinking alcohol.
As reported in the Frontiers in Psychiatry review, exposing someone with anxiety to the physiological symptoms they fear may improve their ability to cope with those triggers. Aerobic exercise appears to be particularly beneficial. For example, if you're afraid that you'll run out of breath during exercise but you keep working out, you may eventually overcome your fear.
Make sure you get adequate rest. According to the Frontiers in Psychology review, a bad night's sleep may exacerbate anxiety. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night so your body can recover from daily stress.
Consult a doctor if your anxiety persists or worsens. Medical care is particularly important for those who have suicidal thoughts or behaviors, reach out for alcohol or have other mental problems along with anxiety, warns the Mayo Clinic.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: "Anxiety Disorders"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Can Exercise Help Treat Anxiety?"
- Nemours: "Anxiety Disorders"
- Frontiers in Psychology: "Anxiety and Psycho-Physiological Stress Response to Competitive Sport Exercise"
- ADAA: "Exercise for Stress and Anxiety"
- Child Psychiatry and Human Development: "Maternal Acceptance Moderates Fear Ratings and Avoidance Behavior in Children"
- Mayo Clinic: "Exercise and Stress: Get Moving to Manage Stress"
- Frontiers in Psychiatry: "Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety"
- University of Michigan: "How Anxiety Can Fuel a Panic Attack — and What to Do Next"
- American Institute of Stress: "Take a Deep Breath"
- National Sleep Foundation: "National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times"
- Mayo Clinic: "Anxiety Disorders"
- University of New Mexico: "Metabolic Effects of HIIT"
- Beyond Blue: "What Causes Anxiety?"